I wanted to do something a bit different with this review, because James Joyce’s Ulysses is such a big, expansive book, so I’ve decided to break it down into sections, and rather than providing a ‘review’ as such, use this as a way to chart my own progress through the book, noting things that I picked out from the section, with a separate, concluding review if I feel I can actually produce any coherent thoughts on the novel as a whole. I’ve been reading Ulysses one episode at a time (the book is split into 18 episodes rather than chapters) and pretty much managing to read an episode per day.
I read the first episode on the ship Ulysses, on my way from Holyhead to Dublin, the city in which the book is set. This first episode introduces the read to Stephen Dedalus (who readers may be familiar with if they’ve read Joyce’s earlier novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). The episode takes place in a Martello Tower, where Joyce really stayed for a period of 6 nights. Dedalus being a fictionalised Joyce, the book opens by charting his ejection from the tower, which occurs in a similar way to the experience Joyce had. Already knowing the tale of Joyce’s brief stay in the tower, I found this episode fairly easy to follow, though there were certain things I missed, and only picked up on upon reading about the episode afterwards. I didn’t realise that the book paid Dedalus so much attention, because the character from Ulysses everyone seems to talk about is Leopold Bloom, but he doesn’t appear in the book until episode four, so there won’t be much mention of him here. Dedalus’ time in the tower is so reminiscent of Joyce’s that it’s definitely worth looking up Joyce’s experience at Martello Tower before reading the episode to offer some background into the real-life goings on.
Episode two, however, threw me a bit. I didn’t realise Dedalus was a teacher, and for a while struggled to grasp what was happening. Once I’d caught on, I followed the episode reasonably well (if I do say so myself) probably missing some finer details, but generally understanding the general events of the episode. Dedalus’ conversation with Mr Deasy, his boss, also brought up some interesting points about Dedalus: clearly he has some contacts, because Deasy is very forceful in this scene, persuading Dedalus to deliver a letter for him. I was also surprised by the jump in scene from episode to episode, though I fairly easily adjusted to that as I carried on through the episodes. One of the things that surprised me was how dialogue heavy these first two episodes were, having always had Ulysses described as a very internal, stream of consciousness text, these first two episodes seemed to have far more conversation than I had expected.
The stream of consciousness really hits for the first time in episode three, the final episode of part one, and the final episode centered around Dedalus’ day (though he does reappear later, featuring quite prominently in at least one other episode). Dedalus, having lost access to his home, Martello Tower, and having left the school he works at, takes a walk along the beach, deep in thought. This is the first episode I started struggling to follow what was going on, with the language much denser than the first two episodes, and Stephen’s constant dipping into his memories and out of the present causing some confusion with what was real and what was memory or imagination. This episode started to introduce more of the general style I expected from the book, and does continue somewhat throughout the next few episodes before it starts to experiment with the novel form.
Overall, I enjoyed the first three episodes, though they were very different from what I expected, but from the progress I’ve made so far I’ve learnt that the best thing to expect is the unexpected from Ulysses. Throughout my reading, I’ve been using the Yale Modernism essays. The site has a page for each episode and is really helpful for discussing not only the summary of the episode, but also provides some analysis and explains the links to The Odyssey. Each episode can be found by searching for the episode titles that can be found in the key explaining the structure of the book. Episodes one, two, and three have been linked.
Next post in the series is here
Cover photo: me at Martello Tower, now known as the James Joyce Tower & Museum. Photo taken by my boyfriend.